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30 June, 2023

ON 9 JULY 1971, Henry Kissinger, the national security advisor to the US president, Richard Nixon, arrived in China on a secret diplomatic mission. Kissinger’s visit was the first to the country by a US official since the Communist Party of China seized power, in 1949. It laid the groundwork for Nixon’s landmark meeting with the CPC chairperson, Mao Zedong, the following year.

Eager to capitalise on the Sino-Soviet split and open up another front in the Cold War, Nixon had been looking for a way to negotiate a détente with China ever since he assumed the presidency, in January 1969. His administration sought to open channels of communication between the two countries, by holding talks with Chinese diplomats in Paris and Warsaw, and by sending messages through the governments of Romania and Pakistan. On 21 April 1971, the Chinese premier, Zhou Enlai, sent a message through the Pakistani president, Yahya Khan, inviting Nixon to send an envoy.

With public opinion being decidedly against communist China and the recent publication of the Pentagon Papers having stoked White House paranoia about leaks, Nixon decided to keep the visit secret, even from his secretary of state. Kissinger departed on a fact-finding tour of Asia, with stops in Guam, Vietnam, Thailand, India and Pakistan. During a welcome dinner in Islamabad, he feigned a stomach upset. Yahya Khan insisted that he be taken to a remote hill station to recuperate but, unbeknownst to the media and US embassy staff, a Pakistani jet flew Kissinger to Beijing.

Once in China, Kissinger held marathon meetings with Zhou, during which he agreed that the United States would disavow Taiwanese independence and withdraw most of its forces from the island once the Vietnam War ended. He returned to Islamabad on 11 July. Four days later, Nixon announced that he would travel to China within the next few months.